Fort Smith a finalist for military sales program to develop a fighter training center for foreign pilots

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 5,323 views 

The F-35

Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith is one of five U.S. Air Force finalist sites for a long-term pilot training center supporting F-16 and F-35 fighter planes purchased by Singapore, Switzerland and other countries participating in the Foreign Military Sales program.

The announcement was made Monday (July 20) by U.S. Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton, R-Ark., U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson. A preliminary “preferred and reasonable alternatives” decision should come no later than January 2021, with a final decision possible in the winter of 2022, according to information from Womack’s office.

According to the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, the federal agency managing the Foreign Military Sales (FMS), the program is “responsible arms sales to further national security and foreign policy objectives by strengthening bilateral defense relations, supporting coalition building, and enhancing interoperability between U.S. forces and militaries of friends and allies. These sales also contribute to American prosperity by improving the U.S. balance of trade position, sustaining highly skilled jobs in the defense industrial base, and extending production lines and lowering unit costs for key weapon systems.”

Secretary of the Air Force Barbara Barrett signed a memo July 6 to create one U.S. site for pilot training for up to 36 F-35 fighters and an F-16 base for the Republic of Singapore. The F-16s are now located at Luke Air Force Base near Phoenix.

The other finalist sites are Hulman Field, Buckley Air Force Base, Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and Selfridge Air National Guard Base.

Hulman, in Terre Haute, Ind., does not have an active manned aircraft mission, but like Ebbing, does have an Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance mission. Buckley Air Force Base, in Aurora, Colo., is part of the nation’s new Space Force and does not have an active manned flight mission. Selfridge Air National Guard Base, north of Detroit, supports manned aircraft units, as does Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland. The San Antonio site is a large base that may have an advantage in that it is home to an Air Education and Training Command that supports the F-16 and F-35.

“Fort Smith has everything the Air Force needs for this training center. With our strategic location and strong community, we are primed to support our allies and the next generation of air combat capabilities. I look forward to working with Secretary Barrett and my fellow Arkansans as the vetting process continues. The River Valley is ready to take on this critical defense mission,” Womack noted in a statement.

According to information from Womack’s office, about 345 U.S. military personnel would be part of the new site that could be active “into the 2030s.” The site will also be home to an estimated 180 members of the Singapore unit and around 300 dependents. Training and aircraft from Finland and Poland may also be part of the FMS site, noted info from Womack’s office.

Womack’s office also said the FMS contracts with foreign countries would include funds from those countries to pay for housing, hangars, ramp space and other infrastructure needed for a new training site.

Gov. Hutchinson said in a statement that Sen. Cotton and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission have lobbied for the site.

“I was elated to learn that Ebbing Air National Guard Base is a finalist to become home to this important training facility. The state is a serious contender because Senator Cotton and the Arkansas Economic Development Commission launched a serious and sophisticated campaign to persuade the selection committee that Fort Smith is the right place. If Arkansas is selected, this will be a significant victory for Fort Smith and all of Arkansas,” Gov. Hutchinson noted in the statement.

If Fort Smith is chosen, it will not be the first time F-16s were based at Ebbing. In 1988 the F-16A Fighting Falcon replaced the F-4C used by the 188th Fighter Wing at Ebbing. A last-minute decision by the Base Realignment and Closure Committee in 2005 replaced the F-16 with the A-10. On April 14, 2007, the 188th received its first A-10. Broad cuts in U.S. defense spending included the removal of 20 A-10 Thunderbolt fighter planes from the 188th by June 2014. The 188th’s new mission changed to an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) mission.